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Direct Monitoring of Safety of Elderly Living Alone in Seoul

9 minute read
Ancient Confucian values and traditions of children respecting parents and strong family relationships were once entrenched in South Korea.
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Ancient Confucian values and traditions of children respecting parents and strong family relationships were once entrenched in South Korea. With a population of 50 million, the country has achieved significant economic growth, but family ties have fragmented. Currently, about 1.2 million elderly, or around 20% of the elderly population, live alone and is exposed to a high mortality rate.

South Korea has the highest aging rate of all industrial countries, with the proportion of elderly rising to 11.8% in 2012, from 7.2% in 2002 and just 3.8% in 1980. Although seniors make up 13% of the total population in South Korea today, this percentage is expected to increase to 40% in 2060.

In light of these data, the government of South Korea does not stand idly, knowing its welfare spending came at second lowest among OECD countries in 2009, not to mention its limited resources. South Korea passed the first wide-ranging law on welfare for the elderly in 1981, focusing on the early detection and treatment of illnesses, as well as ensuring the quality of life for the elderly. The government began sending caretakers to visit the homes of the elderly living alone at least once a week in 2007. These caretakers usually communicate with around 30 seniors and are instructed to contact them periodically. In some regions, local governments adopt less intrusive methods by leaving small bottles of popular yogurt drinks at their front doors every day. If these bottles started piling up, it's usually a bad sign.

All these measures remain insufficient to address the issue of the elderly living on their own. This pushed the government to test the use of AI solutions to monitor the health and quality of life of the elderly, especially those living on their own.

Such initiatives include, for example, a voice-enabled smart speaker, a remote care service tested by SK Telecoms. About 3,200 people over the age of 70 and living alone have allowed the company's speakers to be installed in their homes since the launch of the service in April 2019. These speakers, called Aria, rely on AI technology. They contain a lamp that turns blue when processing voice commands to search for news updates, music, and internet searches. These devices also use quizzes to monitor the memory and cognitive functions of elderly users, which would provide useful recommendations for treatment purposes. In Seoul’s Yangcheon district, officials are using SK Telecom’s technology to monitor 200 seniors living alone. Social workers, who have apps that monitor the conditions of the seniors, call or visit them when they don't use these devices for more than 24 hours.

Seoul has launched this year an innovative solution that requires installing data-collecting sensors that monitor motion, temperature, humidity, and lighting in the houses of the most vulnerable seniors suffering from illnesses and fragmented social ties. The collected data is monitored in real-time via screens owned by the responsible institutions and the mobile phones of the staff in charge. When no movement is detected for a specified period of time or there are abnormal signs in temperature, humidity, or light, the staff in charge responds promptly by calling and going to the house, and takes emergency measures, such as calling an ambulance.

Seoul confirmed that IoT-based motion detection devices are capable of detecting emergencies early on, thus preventing more severe emergencies and saving the lives of the elderly who may lose consciousness in their homes due to their health conditions or may leave their homes due to dementia. Moreover, real-time monitoring allows the staff to check the condition of the elderly at risk, as well as those who cannot be reached easily by phone due to a hearing impairment or because they refuse to receive visitors, as they wish to stay alone or feel depressed. Collecting data on temperature and humidity via IoT devices has made room for repairs in the houses of the elderly, such as installing nets to prevent insects from entering homes using resources from the local community. The system is expected to reduce the death rate of the elderly living alone in Seoul. This is proven by the fact that no single death of this kind in homes monitored by IoT devices occurred since the launch of the project.

The project has detected 135 dangerous cases so far and prompted proactive action. For example, an elderly man was found unconscious at home and was taken to the hospital. An elderly man with dementia was also found after he wandered outside and returned home unharmed.

Seoul plans to expand its distribution of IoT devices annually by installing and supporting 12,500 devices by 2022 to address concerns about lonely death and provide each beneficiary with customized care services through the safety management solution project for the safety and health of the elderly living alone.





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